Tuesday, March 18, 2008

`Walk Away from This Road Show'

Ron Slate has handed me with a convenient excuse to lobby again for W.H. Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare, published by Princeton University Press in 2000. Edited by Arthur Kirsch, the volume collects the talks Auden gave between October 1946 and May 1947 at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In a comment he made on a recent post, Slate quotes Auden:

"Julius Caesar has great relevance to our time, though it is gloomier, because it is about a society that is doomed. Octavius only succeeded in giving Roman society a 400-year reprieve. Our society is not doomed, but in such immense danger that the relevance is great. It was a society doomed not by the evil passions of selfish individuals, because such passions always exist, but by an intellectual and spiritual failure of nerve that made the society incapable of coping with its situation."

Slate adds:

“You wrote a few days ago about grievances. I fear a politics based on allaying grievances, since its force of emotion may disguise its failure of nerve to deal with the complexity of situations, to compromise, and to see through its own good intentions.”

Later in the same paragraph cited by Slate, Auden lays out the responses to a similar cultural/political cul-de-sac as embodied by characters in Julius Caesar:

“The play presents three political responses to this failure. The crowd-master, the man of destiny, Caesar. The man who temporarily rides the storm, Antony. And Caesar’s real successor, the man who is to establish Roman order for a time, Octavius. Brutus, who keeps himself independent, is the detached and philosophical individual.”

We can play the parlor game of assigning public figures to each of the roles, but most of us, I suspect, identify with Brutus. Auden writes:

“Hamlet knows he’s in despair, but Brutus and other characters in Julius Caesar don’t know. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard emphasizes that unconscious despair is the most extreme form of despair….”

Walker Percy used the same observation by Kierkegaard as the epigraph to his first novel, The Moviegoer, and Binx Bolling, the title character, cites Shakespeare when he says, “the malaise is the pain of loss. The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.”

One despairs of a culture in which the dominant mood is one of aggrieved entitlement. We see it in politics but the malady is endemic and seemingly invisible, like air. We see it in schools, offices, literature, advertising and popular music – Americans impatiently awaiting their just deserts. I’m reminded of the least-read of Marilynne Robinson’s four books – Mother Country (1989), a nonfiction work devoted to the environmental degradation caused by the British nuclear reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Here’s her conclusion:

“My greatest hope, which is a very slender one, is that we will at last find the courage to make ourselves rational and morally autonomous adults, secure enough in the faith that life is good and to be preserved, to recognize the grosser forms of evil and name them and confront them. Who will do it for us? E.P. Thompson? Greenpeace? The Duke of Edinburgh? The Washington Post? We have to walk away from this road show, consult with our souls, and find the courage, in ourselves, to see, and perceive, and hear, and understand.”

Robinson earned her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1977, with a dissertation on Shakespeare's Henry VI.

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